Numbers in New Hampshire

ON the eve of New Hampshire's primary, we hear much about numbers: ratings, standings, caucus results. But when the 13 candidates debate in the Granite State this weekend, we hope to hear some frank discussion on some other numbers, less subject to spin control: the federal budget deficit.

Bruce Babbitt has forthrightly advocated a 5 percent consumption tax to balance the budget, and look where it's getting him and his incredible shrinking campaign. Robert Dole's spending freeze proposal already has social security beneficiaries in a dither. And where are the others?

The problem is that the United States is still paying for a big mistake made early in the Reagan administration: a major three-year tax cut accompanied by an increase in spending. The result has been serious deficits, which, because of the low private savings rates prevailing in the United States, have been financed by borrowing abroad.

It took a 500-point one-day drop in the Dow Jones industrial average to get Washington to realize that the deficit needed cutting, but even then, the December cuts package was disappointing - only about $30 billion, already discounted by the time the deal was finally struck.

One could wish that Congress had made some internal compromises to present to the President as a fait accompli, but Congress was too exhausted after years of dealing with an uncompromising President.

Unfortunately, candidates like George Bush have responded to this chronic standoff by suggesting a line-item veto for the president. Letting the president set aside an item to get the Congress to vote on it separately - with only a simple majority required - might not be a bad idea. But a president could use a line-item veto to increase spending, by refusing, for instance, to sign an appropriations bill until this or that pet project was included. Budget-balancing by fiat, `a la Gramm-Rudman, may merely demonstrate congressional ingenuity with smoke and mirrors and shifting responsibilities to others - private employers to provide health insurance, for instance.

The deficit habit will be tough to break. But a new president can do something about it. Let's hope he does.

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